LIBERAL, Kan. — Clutch shots from the field down the stretch and outstanding free-throw shooting helped the Butler men to a 71-67 road victory over defending Region VI champion Seward County in Tuesday's Jayhawk Conference opener.
Butler (8-2 overall, 1-0 conference) handed Seward County its first home loss at the Greenhouse in 15 games and ended the Saints' 11-game home conference win streak.
"For us to come in here and beat them in the first game of conference, it's good for us," said Butler guard Grehlon Easter, who led the Grizzlies with 17 points and pulled down seven rebounds. "It's only one game, but it gives us a good edge going into the rest of conference play."
Javaunte Hawkins and Marque English added 13 points each, while Kamron Brice scored 10 in the win. Tracy Jones finished with eight points and nine rebounds for the Grizzlies, excelled from the foul line, hitting 23 of the last 24 shots from the stripe – including 19 consecutive charity shots.
"One of our keys tonight was to play with poise," said Butler head coach Kyle Fisher. "We knew we were coming into a really, tough environment playing one of the best defensive teams in the country. We had some mental toughness to be able hang in there, get big stops, big rebounds and had a couple guys make shots and make free throws down the stretch."
Down 36-33 at halftime, Butler tied Seward with 38-all on a Hawkins 3-pointer, then took a brief 41-40 lead after Easter was fouled on a 3-point attempt and hit all three charity shots – putting the Grizzlies up by one with 17:07 remaining.
Seward looked to have the momentum after Greg Johnson hit consecutive 3-pointers in a 25-second span, putting the Saints up by 57-49 at the 7:14 mark. Butler would call timeout and quickly cut the deficit down to one in less than a two-minute span. Brice hit a 3-pointer to jumpstart the run, Hawkins added two free throws and Jones tipped in a Hawkins miss, leaving the Grizzlies down 57-56 with 5:23 remaining.
After a Seward field goal to push the margin back to three, Easter hit a runner in the lane, then Hawkins followed on the next possession with a 17-foot jumper to put Butler in front 60-59.
Seward's Nika Metskhvarishvili gave the hosts its last lead with a basket in the paint with 4:00 left, but a Brice 3-pointer from the right wing on the other end had the Grizzlies back up by two. Moments later, Easter grabbed a steal in the Seward backcourt and broke away for a dunk for a Butler 65-61 lead with 2:32 remaining.
"It was big," said Easter about his dunk. "It gave our team a comfortable lead and gave us some momentum to close the game out."
Easter added a leaning off-balanced shot from 19 feet away with 1:09 to play for a 67-64 Butler lead. Seward followed by making 1-of-2 foul shots, then Butler barely broke the Saints' press and went up by four with 25.8 seconds to play after Jones banked in a shot high off the backboard with the shot clock winding down. Seward scored a field goal under 10 seconds remaining, but Hawkins would hit two free throws to seal the win for the Grizzlies.
Butler was clutch from the foul line, despite missing its first five free throws of the contest. The Grizzlies shot 79 percent (23-of-29), hitting their final 19 foul shots – including 11-of-11 in the second half.
"We had the right guys shooting them in the second half," Fisher said. "Having the mental toughness to knock them down in tough situations, but I think we did a good job attacking them and getting to the free-throw line."
"We've been working hard on our free throws," said Easter, who made a perfect 9-of-9 from the line. "Coach (Fisher) has been emphasizing – on the road especially – that we're going to have to knock down our free throws late in the game. We were able to do that tonight."
Butler's ability to make free throws kept the Grizzlies in the contest. During a 10-minute stretch in the first half, Butler made only two field goals – both from Juwan White. Seward built a 31-22 lead with 5:18 before the break, but the Grizzlies would close the half by hitting 8-of-8 foul shots – including six from Easter.
Seward made just one field goal in the final five minutes of the opening half, getting a basket and a bonus foul shot from Metskhvarishvili shortly after Butler tied the game at 33-all on an English 3-pointer at the 1:13 mark.
Seward (5-2) was led in scoring by Metskhvarishvili and Branton McCray, who scored 15 points each. Surakata Jawara added 12 points and 10 rebounds for the Saints.
Butler will continue league play on the road Saturday with a 5:00 p.m. contest at Colby (7-1 overall), who had Wednesday's home conference opener against Neosho County postponed due to weather.
"It's a tough week with two road games wrapped around Thanksgiving," said Fisher. "It's hard enough to get players to think right and play right around Thanksgiving time, then you add on two four-hour trips. There's a lot of excuses we could make, but the schedule has been set. We knew what we were getting into and I think we've got the toughness to handle it."